World War II ended 72 years ago. Historians have produced a voluminous history chronicling its course. Yet, almost three-quarters of a century later, there are still many unanswered questions about the war. Even now, there is considerable material about wartime military and intelligence operations that, unexplainably, remains classified.
Not surprisingly, those unanswered questions have given rise to a spate of conspiracy theories challenging the conventional narrative about the war. Among those theories is the claim that Adolf Hitler did not die in his Berlin bunker but escaped Berlin and found refuge in South America. The theme that Hitler lived has fueled countless movie scripts and thrillers, and has even led to a glut of recent documentaries examining that contention. It is not my intention here to argue either for or against the proposition that Hitler escaped from his Berlin bunker — rather, it is to summarize the principal evidence that exists for and against that argument.
British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper documented the official account of the death of Hitler in his book The Last Days of Hitler. Trevor-Roper was a British intelligence officer during the war. In June 1945, he was assigned the task of documenting Hitler’s last days to prove that Hitler had in fact died in his bunker. Critics of his book have argued that Trevor-Roper was an odd choice for the task. Notwithstanding the fact that he would go on to become a distinguished military historian and the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford from 1957 to 1980, in 1945 Trevor-Roper was known as a specialist in 16th and 17th century British history. Moreover, he neither spoke nor read German. Trevor-Roper completed his research over a period of 10 days. He appeared to have relied on summaries of interrogations of various people who were believed to have been in the bunker with Hitler in the last week of April that were provided to him by American intelligence officers. He did not have access to any Nazi prisoners being held by the Soviets, and it is unclear whether he actually spoke to any of the alleged witnesses.
The testimony obtained from eyewitnesses was contradictory, claiming that Hitler’s death had occurred on any one of five days between April 27 and May 1. Accounts of the cause of death ranged from natural causes to poisoning to suicide. There was a consensus that the body of Hitler had been burnt, but the descriptions of the body and how it was dressed varied considerably. In itself, widely varying eyewitness descriptions is nothing new. Police investigators deal with this phenomenon all the time. It does appear, however, that Trevor-Roper constructed a narrative of Hitler’s death by combining the various eyewitness accounts, even though those accounts had widely varying timelines.
One would think that if there was any chance that Hitler had escaped from Berlin, it would have been in the interest of the Western Allies to publicize it and organize the world’s greatest manhunt. In fact, the Allies had a vested interest in advancing the narrative that Hitler had died in the bunker by his own hand. The Allies believed that the German population would be more accepting of the occupation if they believed Hitler dead and the prospect of a Hitler led Nazi resurgence impossible.
Moreover, they were determined to show that Hitler had died a coward’s death and wanted to nip in the bud any possibility that the Nazi’s could ever advance a repeat of the “stabbed in the back” explanation that followed Germany’s defeat in World War I. Trevor-Roper’s task was not to determine what happened in Hitler’s final days, it was to put together an argument that he had died in the bunker. This he did, in the process creating a bestseller.
There was another reason why the Allies wanted Hitler dead—Operation Sunrise. Hitler’s alpine retreat in Bavaria, Berchtesgaden, was more than just the Fuhrer’s vacation hideaway. It was designed to be an alternative command center in the event that Berlin fell. All of the major figures in the Nazi government had homes in Berchtesgaden, in some cases as annexes to Hitler’s own palatial estate. There were miles of tunnels built into the mountain below Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, including a 240,000 square foot command center.
The Nazi’s had intended, after the fall of Berlin, to continue the war from their mountain fortress in Bavaria. Significantly, Herman Goering was captured by the Allies in Bavaria, as were scores of other Nazi party bigwigs. After the war, the German government destroyed what was left of Berchtesgaden, bulldozing the debris and planting trees over the sight to ensure that it did not become a shrine to Adolph Hitler. The tunnels and the underground bunker were sealed, but presumably still exist.
In March 1945, with the end of the war in sight, the OSS with the assistance of Swiss Intelligence operatives, began a series of negotiations, dubbed Operation Sunrise or Operation Sunrise-Crossroads, between Allen Dulles and Waffen-SS General Karl Wolff over the surrender of Army Group C in northern Italy and western Austria. Army Group C was tasked with the defense of northern Italy. It numbered some one million Wehrmacht soldiers, most of whom were being held in reserve. It had another purpose, however, Army Group C was tasked with manning the Alpine redoubt that the Nazi’s intended to use to continue the war in Europe after Berlin’s fall.
There are several extensive histories of Operation Sunrise. There are also a lot of unanswered questions. The OSS files regarding the negotiations ended up at the CIA, and it is not clear whether they have all been released. Wolff was not authorized to conduct negotiations with the Allies. The surrender of Army Group C on May 2, five days before Germany’s official surrender, sealed the fate of the Third Reich and eliminated any possibility of continuing the war in the Bavarian Alps.
This is where the conspiracy theories have taken root. One version of the story is that Wolff convinced Hitler that he was negotiating with the Western Allies an anti-Soviet alliance that would cease hostilities on the Western Front and allow Allied armies, along with the remaining German forces, to immediately advance East and stop any further Soviet advances. Such an explanation isn’t that farfetched, Hitler harbored fantasies until his death that he could create a split between the Soviets and the Western Allies.
A related version of the story is that as part of this new alliance, Hitler would be given safe passage out of Germany. That addendum might have come from Wolff or it might have been created by the Soviets. Allied records of the negotiations, at least those that have been released, make no reference to such a deal even being broached much less negotiated. Another version of this story is that Hitler proposed a potential alliance with both the Soviets and the Western Allies, offering the remaining German military forces to whichever side agreed first to the German alliance. The combined force would then push either the Western Allies or the Soviets out of the European territory they controlled.
This would have been a replay of the negotiations between the Nazis and the British and French on one side and the Soviets on the other side that ultimately led to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. That Hitler might have believed that such a scenario was plausible isn’t surprising, but there is no evidence that any such substantive discussions ever occurred with either the Soviets or the Western Allies.
The Soviets were eventually informed by the US Ambassador to Moscow Averill Harriman of the negotiations. Stalin insisted that a Soviet representative be included in the deliberations. Wolff, however, threatened to break off the negotiations if the Soviets were part of the discussions. By March of 1945, it was clear that Germany’s defeat was only a matter of time. It was also clear by then that Moscow intended to organize national governments in the territories it had liberated that would be to its liking.
Stalin’s armies were steadily expanding over Central Europe, he had no interest in bringing the war to a faster end. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the longer the war lasted the more territory would fall into Soviet hands. After the end of the war, Soviet media sources began citing the Sunrise negotiations as proof that the Allies had made a deal to grant Adolph Hitler safe passage. The Trevor-Roper investigation was designed to refute that rumor by demonstrating that Hitler had died in the bunker.
The physical evidence of Hitler’s death was collected by SMERSH. Most people know of SMERSH as the mythical organization of bad guys in the early James Bond films. There really was a SMERSH and it actually was the Russian acronym for “Death to Spies.” It referred to three counterintelligence agencies in the Soviet Red Army that operated from 1942, or possibly late 1941, until 1946. Stalin was deeply suspicious of the loyalty of the Red Army and was concerned about Nazi attempts to suborn it. SMERSH played a variety of roles, including identifying potential traitors in the army, as well as verifying the loyalty of returning prisoners of war that had been captured by the Nazis.
The story of Hitler’s physical remains is an incredibly convoluted one, and has been documented extensively by Australian researcher Giordan Smith. Space doesn’t allow me to repeat it but his analysis can be found here. In a nutshell, over the years the Soviets and then the Russians, have trotted out various skulls that they claim were Hitler’s but these have all been rejected for various reasons. The most recent case, an analysis by a team from the University of Connecticut in 2009, found that the skull that Russian authorities claimed was Hitler’s had in fact been that of a woman.
The most definitive forensic evidence was a jaw whose dental analysis matched the dental records obtained from Hitler’s personal dentist. Normally dental records, especially when they show extensive dental work, is taken as proof of identity. Giordan Smith, however, points to circumstantial evidence that the records might have been deliberately faked. He notes that Hitler’s dentist was subsequently arrested by Soviet authorities and disappeared into the Soviet gulag and was never heard of again. A rather stiff sentence for just being Hitler’s dentist, but not surprising if the Soviets had concluded the dentist had tried to deceive them.
According to the Soviets, all but two of the bones recovered from the chancellery grounds were eventually cremated and the ashes dispersed to ensure that Hitler’s remains would not become a shrine for Nazi diehards. What remains, if the Kremlin is to be believed, consist of a skull and the lower jaw used for the dental identification. The Soviets, and now the Russians, have seemed reluctant to settle the question of whether Hitler died in the bunker. They control whatever forensic evidence, however questionable, exists concerning Hitler’s death. DNA analysis might be able to confirm that the bones are in fact Hitler’s. It’s not clear why Moscow would have any reason to not want to settle the issue other than for the possibility that it is in the Kremlin’s interest to preserve the narrative that the Western Allies somehow helped Hitler escape.
Several years ago the FBI released around 700 pages of documents relating to the question of Hitler’s death. Conspiracy theorists were quick to pounce on them as proof that Hitler escaped the bunker. Those documents, however, offer no such proof. Generally, they cover three issues. First they describe the FBI’s doubts, for a variety of reasons, that the physical remains that had been shown to FBI investigators by Soviet intelligence officials were in fact the remains of Adolph Hitler. Secondly, they relate comments by various Soviet officials, including those from Joseph Stalin and Field Marshall Zhukov that “Hitler got away.” That belief was not just limited to the Soviets. US General George Patton also expressed the same view.
Finally, they describe various purported sightings of Adolph Hitler. Many of those were in fact in South America, but reports of Hitler sightings came in from all over the world. In fact, Hitler sightings may be exceeded only by those of Elvis. Some of those sightings had remarkably accurate descriptions, not surprising given that Adolph Hitler was by then the most notorious person in the world, complete with his trademark toothbrush mustache. Although one would think that the first thing that Hitler the fugitive would have done was shave his telltale mustache.
The final body of documentation cited by conspiracy theorists relates to the evidence that the Nazis established a bolt hole in Argentina and that following the end of the war scores of Nazis made their way there. Much of this information is credible and has been verified. The Nazis began paying Argentine President Juan Peron a subsidy beginning in 1932, to ensure that they would have a safe refuge waiting for them if they needed it. Nazi front organizations made large purchases of real estate in Argentina, including a giant ranch in Patagonia that had a dock capable of berthing ocean going ships or submarines.
In the days following the German surrender, 40 Nazi submarines left German ports, as well as scores of ships and planes. Thirty submarines subsequently surrendered, two including U-977, the submarine that allegedly carried Hitler to Argentina, surrendered after dropping off their cargo. Eight submarines were never accounted for. That large numbers of submarines and aircraft carrying prominent Nazis that left Germany after its surrender is a matter of historical fact. That one of them carried Adolph Hitler is conjecture.
There are any number of plausible theories of how Hitler could have escaped Berlin, assuming he was even there. The city had an extensive underground subway system that would have allowed an escape to the West. In addition, on April 26, Luftwaffe pilot Hanna Reitsch, described as Hitler’s personal pilot or favorite pilot, landed a Fiesler Storch on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate not far from the Chancellery grounds. The Storch only needs about 200 feet of runway. She left a few hours later. Conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that she might have carried Hitler safely out of Berlin. That’s entirely plausible, although there is no evidence she had a passenger, much less who that passenger was. She would fly in and out of Berlin several times between April 26 and April 28.
There are other interesting tidbits that weave their way in and out of the Hitler lived narrative. Hitler supposedly had a thyroid condition that made him particularly sensitive to warm temperatures. His home in Berchtesgaden was built with north facing windows to permanently keep out the sun. There were frequent reports that visitors found the home always cold. Interestingly enough, a German businessman in Argentina that often fronted for the Nazis, built an exact replica of Hitler’s home in Berchtesgaden in San Carlos di Bariloche in the province of Rio Negro.
The area had a large German community and its terrain was very similar to the Bavarian Alps. The house built in Bariloche had south facing windows designed to keep out the sun. Perhaps the home was intended for Hitler’s use, then again maybe the view was better to the south. Either way, even if the home had been designed for Hitler’s use that doesn’t mean he actually made it there. The Nazi’s considered Argentina their bolt hole, so its not inconceivable that Hitler had plans to relocate there if he needed to.
There is also the unresolved mystery of the Hitler fortune. The Nazis were notorious kleptocrats. Hitler liked to project the image that he was above the ceaseless moneygrubbing of his associates. Nonetheless, Hitler is believed to have accumulated a substantial fortune. Tens of millions of copies of Mien Kampf were printed by the German government for which Hitler was paid a royalty. Hitler also received royalties for the use of his visage on German stamps. There were probably other sources of wealth accumulated by der Fuhrer. None of this wealth was ever found, however.
So, what exactly do we know and not know? There is no tangible evidence that Hitler died in the bunker in the closing days of April 1945. It is entirely possible that he could have escaped but, equally, there is no tangible evidence that he actually did. The official accounts of the events leading up to Hitler’s death are suspect. That doesn’t mean he didn’t die, but it does mean that he could have died under significantly different circumstances.
There were certainly ways for Hitler to get to South America. Many Nazis did in fact do exactly that. Again, however, other than for some intriguing circumstantial evidence, there is no proof that Adolph Hitler was one of them. The many reported sightings of Hitler after the end of the war were by people who have long since died and the accounts are now hearsay evidence. They are as believable as the reports about Elvis.
Had there been even a shred of possibility that Hitler might have lived, one would think that Western intelligence agencies would have mounted a worldwide campaign to find him. If there was such a campaign it has never been disclosed and it is hard to believe it could have stayed under wraps for this length of time. Likewise, one would think that Israel’s Mossad would have made finding Hitler its absolute priority, but again there is no evidence that any such mission was ever undertaken.
The most likely scenario is the simplest one. Hitler did die in the bunker but probably under very different conditions than the official history. The Western Allies had a vested interest in perpetuating the narrative that Hitler died a coward’s death at his own hand. The Soviets, who could have disputed that narrative had their own interests for leaving the issue unresolved. Baring the release of some “smoking gun” document currently buried in intelligence archives, the question will probably never be settled.
Joseph V. Micallef is a military historian, bestselling author, keynote speaker, syndicated columnist and commentator on international politics and the future.